Art therapist heals trauma victims

Gloria De Pietro started out as a painter, and most people in Red Hook know her as the muralist who has captured images of Red Hook’s history and painted it on buildings around town. But she recently opened a private practice at the Wellness Center in Hyde Park to provide art therapy to trauma victims.

“After 9/11, I felt that I couldn’t cloister myself away in my studio when so many people needed help,” said De Pietro. “I knew art making was therapeutic, so I went back to school, got my Master’s Degree at the College of New Rochelle and have been an art therapist working with children and young adults for the past 10 years.”

Trauma is very prevalent in our society. It affects over four million children in the United States every year, De Pietro said, and a lot of the young men and women who return from the battlefield will experience some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their lifetime.

“To understand how art therapy works, you have to understand what happens in the body in its reaction to trauma,” said De Pietro. She cited Bessel Van der Kolk, a psychiatrist who has done extensive research on the effects of trauma on the body, for explaining that the images of trauma get stuck in the hippocampus, that part of the brain that stores memories. Once the hippocampus is flooded with cortisol, which is released during times of extreme stress, the memory cannot be retrieved to language.

Tapes of interviews with witnesses who saw the World Trade Center towers collapse on 9/11 show that they have trouble describing what they saw, De Pietro said. “They will say something like, ‘It was indescribable’ or ‘It was unbelievable.’ I believe this amnesia is a way for the body to protect itself. The memories become suppressed.”

Trauma victims will have nightmares, become depressed or have anxiety because the memory is just under the surface and can be triggered by a smell, a sound, and a certain kind of touch or any fragment of the memory that is touched upon, De Pietro explained.

“Visual imagery is the language the subconscious uses during the dream state. That is why creating visual images, like drawing and painting, will tap into the suppressed images of the subconscious and the repressed images stuck in the hippocampus,” said De Pietro. “Once the image is reproduced on paper, the conscious mind can decipher its meaning and finally connect with the lost bits of information.” Art therapists are trained to recognize the meaning of the symbols and they understand that these fractured bits of lost memories need to be integrated back into the conscious mind.

“I recently opened up my own private practice where I am looking forward to continuing my work with children and adults,” said De Pietro. “I truly believe in the power to transform the human condition through art therapy, which uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages. I have witnessed some life-changing transformations.”

Gloria De Pietro’s new office is in the Wellness Center in Hyde Park at 4307 Albany Post Rd (Route 9). Reach her at 845-233-5757 or 917-215-1179 or come to her free lecture at the Center on Wednesday, June 6 at 7pm.

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